The year is 1978. American cinema is immersed in Blaxploitation, hard-boiled crime dramas and an un-satiated, seemingly endless lust for sex on screen. A wildly popular, all African-American cast Broadway extravaganza called The Wiz has begun to finish its long standing (since 1975) run. Enter Sidney Lumet; hot off the successes Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, Murder on the Orient Express and Equus. The goal? A no-no of a remake of the indelible 1939 film The Wizard of Oz. What’s that, you say? Why touch an allegedly perfect film? Well, I say why not?
Is The Wiz even half as charming, polished, accessible and heart-warming as the original? Absolutely not, and it's proud of it. Lumet (although he was hired simply because the original director quit after being forced to cast Diana Ross in a role undoubtedly too young for her) was determined to ignore the 1939 opus and head in his own direction. The result is an absolute mess. But, it's a hot mess – a mess that this writer cannot look away from. A mess that, whether intentional or not, stumbles into near-transcendent moments of pitch black humor, far too much self awareness, undeniable beauty and atypical, but succinct songs that will stick with you should you head back for another viewing.
The cast is unbelievable. Michael Jackson steals every bit of the show with his youthfully exuberant portrayal of the Scarecrow. Ted Ross brings a dark undercurrent to his initially surface-level portrayal of the Lion. Nipsy Russell phones things in a bit, but ends up endowing the Tin Man with the bit of humanity we need to feel the tug of the heart strings in the overly preachy final moments. Richard Pryor isn't given enough time as Oz, but makes damn sure you won't forget the time he has. And last, and certainly least, Diana Ross nearly derails the whole affair, pretending to be a youngster full of hopes and dreams; which only comes out as a constant attempt to be on the verge of tears. Quincy Jones adapts many songs from the Broadway original to fit with Lumet's dark, borderline surreal portrayal of Harlem and eventually the Land of Oz.
Even if you only watch this film as a curiosity, I can near promise that you will be surprised and delighted by at least one aspect. Again, we are dealing with a hot mess. But, this hot mess has a lot of heart, a lot of passion, and who can resist Michael Jackson giving his all in any circumstance (accusations of whatever not withstanding)?
- Will Morris